It is the moment every sportsman dreams about. The phone call that informs him he has been invited to captain his country. But Paul Collingwood was not especially pleased to feel his mobile phone vibrate in his pocket. At the time he was contemplating an important putt on the 14th green at Brancepeth Castle Golf Club near Durham.
"I know I shouldn't have my phone on the golf course, and I was lining up a very important birdie putt when it started to vibrate," Collingwood recalls. "I looked at it and saw it was Grav [David Graveney, the chairman of selectors] so I thought I'd better answer it. Then he told me the good news."
If anything, what happened next was even more revealing of Collingwood's character. "I was trying to get him off the phone so I could finish lining my putt up," he remembers, "but he started talking about teams and players and everything. Soon my partners started walking off to the next tee and there was I trying to get Grav off the phone so that I could get my putt in. I missed the putt, which was a bit of a pisser, because I was having a good round at the time. I didn't mind receiving the news but I didn't want to go through the teams and stuff then and there.
"I don't know whether I was supposed to, because the announcement hadn't yet been made public, but I phoned my wife and my parents straight away and they were chuffed. In the evening there was nothing flash, I just went for a couple of pints in my local pub with a couple of mates as usual. It was pretty low key and the next day it was announced in the media."
For many the news would have been the highlight of their year, but not for Collingwood. That came on 9 February in front of 38,858 disbelieving Australians at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. England had lost the Ashes 5-0 and were getting thumped by Australia and New Zealand in the Commonwealth Bank Series. Andrew Flintoff's side looked set to be leaving Australia in the most humiliating of manners when somehow they turned the tournament on its head, winning their final four matches in emphatic style and returning home with a piece of silverware, if not the urn.
Ed Joyce kick-started England's revival with a wonderful 107 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, but it was Collingwood who inspired the side with scores of 106, 120 not out and 70. It was his second hundred, in the first final, that supplied him with his most memorable moment not just of the last 12 months but of his whole cricketing life.
"The unbeaten 120 I got at Melbourne is, to date, the best innings of my career," he admits. "To finish a game like that off in a final was unbelievable. I knew that I was going to do it from about four overs out. There was an inevitability about it. I know that a game is not finished until the last ball, but I just knew. I was as much in the zone then as I have ever been. It was as though I was a different person. It was almost an out-of-body experience. To get to there from where I had been was an amazing experience."
The World Cup, offering only further disappointment for Collingwood and England supporters, followed. In the fallout the coach Duncan Fletcher resigned, as did Michael Vaughan as one-day captain, a move that allowed Collingwood to become something that no Durham cricketer had been before.
"It has been a remarkable year for me and the England team and, looking back, there have been so many ups and downs. The lows were as low as I have ever been and the highs have been real highs. There has been a real contrast. Winning the one-day series in Australia was an unbelievable high. In the middle of the tournament we were as low as a side could get. The two defeats in Adelaide were horrendous. Our confidence, everything was shot. I'm sure a few of the other players would agree with me, that we were was as low as a side could get mentally. To come back and win it, though, provided us with an amazing high.
"There was no special formula or meeting to our success. It turned around because we could not get any lower. We just thought 'sod this' and went out and played. It was an unbelievable mental shift. We just all thought, 'Let's not think about this too much.' It's amazing that you train so much to play your best cricket, and it drains you enormously when you are not performing on the pitch. You try harder and harder, and you do all the right things but you don't go anywhere. It makes losing hurt even more. It got to the point where it could not get any worse and we must all have thought together 'to hell with this' and went out and played.
"In the end I put my change in form down to something as stupid as a change of grip. I changed from a white one to a pink one. You do silly things like that just for the sake of it, in the hope that it brings you a change of fortune or something when you are down in the dumps. And on this occasion it did."
Of course the year also ended on a low for England at Test level, with Vaughan's side well beaten in Sri Lanka. The third day of the final Test in Galle was especially dispiriting as England collapsed to 81 all out in reply to Sri Lanka's first innings total of 499 for 8 declared, in a game they had to win to save the series. Collingwood top-scored with 29 but is well aware of the poverty of the performance. "We can't make excuses," he said. "I can't think of many worse days."
Some players can rely on genius or intuition when things are down: Collingwood's greatest asset is his competitive spirit. It is a clich but he really is the scrapper in England's team. Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell may provide England's batting with elegance and class but it is a 31-year-old fighter they look to when things get ugly. That competitive edge was highlighted as we sat down to talk by the hotel swimming pool in Galle.
When explaining why The Independent wanted to interview him, I began by saying that it was because he had had an exceptional year, in which he had been made England's one-day captain and scored more runs than ... but before I could finish the sentence he looked up from his food to say: "Any other England player."
Actually, I had meant that Collingwood had scored more runs in 2007 than in any previous year, but the fact that he was prepared to put himself up against any of his more celebrated team-mates (in fact, Pietersen just pips him in total runs) shows the depth of his competitive spirit. And it was such spirit that impressed Fletcher. Fletcher has received plenty of criticism since publishing his autobiography, but Collingwood's loyalty towards him remains, and understandably so. It was Fletcher who noticed Collingwood had more to offer than he was showing with Durham and gave him his chance as an England player.
"It was sad to see Duncan go because I have always gotten on really well with him," Collingwood says. "His coaching skills are unbelievable in so many ways. He is so quick to point out things that you may not be doing right or could be doing better. He always had little theories here and there, and I got on really well with him. It was especially sad for me because I don't think that under any other coach I may have played international cricket. That is why I will always be grateful to him. He looked deeper than the stats. The stats aren't the finished article and they don't show who can develop into a good player."
Fletcher's belief in Collingwood was huge but even he would probably not have viewed him as a potential England captain. During the six years the pair worked together Fletcher chose Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss ahead of him. Collingwood is delighted to be leading his country but it is clear that it is not a job he has been aiming for since his England debut in 2001.
"I'll be honest. Captaincy is something I have never had a huge desire to go on and do," he says. "I have always thought, even in county cricket, it was a bloody hard job. And I was fairly happy just looking after my own game and developing it, which takes quite a lot of looking after. I had worked hard all my life to get in to the position of being an England player and then you take on something big like this and you wonder whether it is going to affect your game and then your place in the side.
"It sounds selfish but these things have to be thought about. Because of that I always thought the captaincy was something that I didn't actually need. It got to the point where the opportunity came around, and I had a long, hard think about it. My game at the time was solid. It still needed to develop, but I thought maybe it is the time to challenge yourself that extra little bit.
"Could I take the team to the next level? That was the main challenge for me. I was not going to take it just so that I could collect the tag of captain. It was about me being able to make a difference and if I thought I could do that I would take the challenge on. So I thought, 'Why not? Give it a go'."
Collingwood's reign did not start in resounding style, with England losing last summer's initial one-day series to the West Indies. But things picked up after that with unexpected series wins at home to India and then in Sri Lanka. In between was a disappointing show at the Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa.
In South Africa he became aware of the limelight that constantly follows the England captain, when a punter sold the story that he was in a lap-dancing bar to a national paper. Collingwood admits that he made a huge mistake and the fallout was tough for him and his young family. Dealing with the media and being in the spotlight is not something he enjoys and the episode made him question, briefly, whether he wanted the job.
But he does and, overall, he is enjoying it immensely. The form of the game that he is most wary of is Twenty20. "For a captain it is a bloody nightmare," he admits chuckling. "I love the game because it brings the crowds in and is a great advert for cricket but it is horrible. It is literally an hour and quarter of mind-boggling stuff. Every single decision is a big decision.
"I've already had a couple of cock-ups. Obviously, forgetting to bowl Freddie [Flintoff] for the last over against South Africa at the recent World Championship was one. There was another occasion, too, at Trent Bridge when we were playing against the West Indies. I was fielding at extra cover, and I looked over my left shoulder to look at the scoreboard. Again I was trying to work out how many overs were left and who should bowl what over. Anyway Dimi [Dimitri Mascharenas] is walking back to his mark and I sort of slip into a different world and suddenly I hear 'Catch it!' and the ball has flown over my head. It was not a catch but if it been hit straight at me it would have cleaned me up. I got away with that one, the cameras did not pick it up. It is a tiring job."
Vaughan has seen enough in Collingwood to suggest that he should replace him when he goes. There are many, myself included, that are not in favour of split captaincy but the two are very close friends and this combination has a better chance of working than most.
"Vaughny and I are very honest with each other and I have told him that I will continue to act as an experienced member of his side," he says. "The atmosphere has been so good in both camps that it hasn't affected anyone. We trust each other. We both know where we are coming from and he knows that I am not trying to take the job out of his hands. I don't want his job at the moment.
"I have simple values and I am still learning a helluva lot. I know that I am not a tactical genius type figure like Vaughny. I am developing all the time. If this approach takes me a long way in captaincy then great. If it does not, I can always say, 'Well, at least I had the balls to take the job on.' "
England's overall form in 2007 has been indifferent but Collingwood's enthusiasm and optimism for the future are tangible. "I am actually very excited about the future," he says. "I don't want to paint a picture where I am seen to be overconfident of where we are going and what we can do but I have seen a lot of signs, like passages of play, games we have won that really excite me. The two opening partnerships in Colombo, Harmy coming back so well there too. We have got some very good youngsters too and with them coming through they are probably doing better than we expected them to and we are starting to get closer to where we want to be in both forms of the game."
Whether Collingwood and Vaughan constantly get the players they want is a moot point following suggestions that a rotation policy may soon be introduced. Collingwood, unsurprisingly, is not a fan of the approach. "I would find it very difficult to be part of a rotation system. You go through your entire career trying to become an international cricketer and then, when you get the three lions on your cap, shirt and jumper you don't want to give it away too easily. As much as it is tiring I would not want to hand my England place to someone else.
"It is the scheduling and that is what has to be looked at. That needs to be gotten right before people start talking about rotation, and that is not going to happen for another three or four years because things are in place.
"I know that it is just an option that they are floating but I would not want to be dropped from the side. Can you imagine what it would be like sitting at home watching the lads playing cricket and you're fit and you could be there? No. What if that person who comes in for you scores a couple of hundreds?"
My time is up but before I let him go I ask whether he dreams of walking out at Lord's in his England blazer to toss with Ricky Ponting in the 2009 Ashes.
"No, he'll be doing it," Paul Collingwood says, pointing at Vaughan on an adjacent table. "I have no doubts about that. I hope that I am following him closely behind and batting No 5. That is both our ambitions to get them Ashes back."Reuse content